So there’s been a huge amount of writing about the recess appointments since I took it up from the Whig perspective on Wednesday. There appear to be four different playing fields on which this is being discussed/argued. To wit:
1) The Constitutional Question. Is the recess appointment of Cordray legal under Article II of the constitution?
2) The Normative Question. When should a recess appointment be available to the President?
3) The Institutional Questions. What caused this? How will it affect future inter-branch conflict over nominations and confirmations?
4) The Political Questions. Will the public legitimate this? Is this good strategy for Obama? How should the GOP respond? How will it affect domestic politics in 2012?
These are all excellent questions to ask, argue about, lobby the public over, and adjudicate. But I see two problems with the current conversation. First, conclusively answering any one of the question doesn’t give you either the answer, or a solid argument, for any of the other question. Whether the recess appointments are judged legitimate by the public has little or nothing to do with whether they are constitutional, and whether they are constitutional has little or nothing to do with whether they are normatively desirable. And you can be damn sure that whether they are normatively desirable has nothing to do with whether it will be accepted as publicly legitimate. So don’t tell me it’s constitutional because the CFPB is popular, don’t tell me it’s a good idea because it’s constitutional, and please don’t tell me the public won’t accept it because it’s a bad normative idea.
Second, and conversely, people seem to want to ignore some questions completely when they address others. And while the answers to some questions aren’t arguments for others, the fact is that all these issues are intertwined. For example, your answer to the normative question is at least partially dependent on your assessment of the institutional question; if the result of the current situation is that Presidents increasingly sidestep the Senate in making future appointments, that is almost certainly going to affect your normative view of Obama’s actions. Similarly, I don’t think the political questions and the institutional questions can be separated; as I wrote earlier in the week, institutional change is often driven (or not driven) by short-term politics. In the end, they are largely the same thing.
With all this in mind, I’ll make two quick points:
1. The normative question and the constitutional questions are inevitably in total conflict. I wrote this Wednesday, but I think it’s worth repeating given how the arguments have progressed: the length of time under which the Senate needs to be in recess for a recess-appointment to be constitutional is already way shorter than any normative rationale can justify. The conflicting values here are congressional control of the executive branch and the judiciary vs. the smooth functioning of the government. Both are hugely important. But the span of court decisions flowing from the strategic use of recess appointments has whittled-down the time period needed for a recess to qualify to the point where the debate is over whether 3 days or a week is enough time under the constitution for a valid appointment.
But even if the constitutional minimum is a full week (and there’s good reason to believe it’s a lot shorter than that), I don’t think there’s a possible normative outlook that can justify that, or at least one that justifies that and doesn’t justify an even shorter time-period. The regular-order process of nomination and confirmation already takes longer than a week. If we had true normative concerns about executive branch officials being missing over a one-week period, we’d probably have temporary recess appointments for all regular nominations, so that the jobs could be stocked while the confirmation process took place in the Senate. But we don’t. Instead, we quickly confirm the very few key positions (like Secretary of State), and the rest sit and wait out the process.
What’s the upshot of this? I see two. First, as far as the constitution is concerned, and as much as it pains my Whig heart to say it, I think we pretty much have to concede that, realistically, the President has the authority to make a recess appointment whenever he wants. The legal issues have been completely divorced from the normative issues, and trying to read a normative position into the constitutional jurisprudence is a fool’s errand. Following that is a second point: we should focus normative energy on the institutional questions. Just because something is constitutional doesn’t make it a good idea. And it also doesn’t make it inevitable that the actors who hold such constitutional powers will use them; political and institutional incentives can be arranged to constrain the constitutional actions of political actors. This is obvious and routine in politics, but something that people tend to forget in these sorts of constitutional stand-offs. But I think it’s especially important here, because…
2. The politics of this seem headed directly toward rearrangements of institutional power. I joked on Twitter this morning that the ultimate end of all of this is probably going to be a pro-president Supreme Court decisions that upholds a GOP recess appointment to the Supreme Court that was made during a Senate quorum call. That’s overblown humor, but I do think things are headed in a slippery direction here. Now that the precedent has been set to use recess appointments during periods of pro forma sessions of the Senate, the Senate’s available responses will be to either (a) accept the President’s ability to move recess appointments more or less at will; (b) stay in actual session for much tighter periods of time; or (c) find some political ways to constrain the President from using the recess appointments.
Obviously, choice C is preferable. But I don’t think we’re going to find out the true extent of this tit-for-tat game until the Senate and the Presidency are controlled by different parties. That may induce real fireworks. Right now, the co-partisanship of the two institutions is probably enough of a restraint on President Obama, but I don’t expect that to hold under an Obama second-term with a GOP Senate or under a GOP Presidency and a Democratic Senate. I would suspect in either of those cases, we will see a rise in recess appointments, to which the Senate may respond by freezing confirmations, to which the response may be more recess appointments. And while we don’t know where that would lead, it seems to me that the President would have the upper hand in the dispute.
But wait, you say, what about a solution in which the regular order nomination/confirmation process was reformed, such that the norms against filibustering nomination returned and recess appointments did not become any more common than they currently are? That would be an excellent outcome, of course, and it’s certainly a plausible solution. But it would also be a major reversal of course in what seems to be an ever-escalating game of constitutional hardball. And the Presidency is a real wildcard in any constitutional hardball game, I think. Internal congressional hardball can easily become a negative sum game for the institution after a series of small positive wins for individuals/parties, which might imply a leviathan-enforced type of internal reform bargain. But a Presidential-congressional battle would tend to be zero-sum game, and one that historically has not been won by the legislature.
So as a Whig, I’m worried. But as someone who studies the legislature institutionally, I’m getting the sense that this is a big enough disruption of the equilibrium to bring on some institutional change. There’s no solid way to predict, one way or another, if and when that will happen. But is certainly seems like all the ingredients are coming into place.